And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Back in the Classroom

Yesterday I was stuck in terrible traffic caused by a terrible fatal three-car accident caused by someone who was driving the wrong way on the freeway at 4 in the morning--sounds hard to do, but happens with more frequency than you might expect. The freeway was closed for investigation over several exits, or entrances; apparently the difference is not clear to some. The traffic delay gave me a chance to contemplate the meaning of life even before the teddy bears and plastic flowers are placed on the roadside at the scene: once I discovered why the traffic wasn't moving, I was in a spot where I couldn't change my course and go home to wait it out even if I'd wanted to.

It was the first time I've driven myself to work in over a month, commuting as I have been with the Wizard. Traveling together in his car has given me opportunity to gawk around and use mobile devices with impunity. A passive partner in the passenger seat, I've been listening to HIS Teaching Company lectures, so far learning rather dreary biographical information about Mozart, Mahler, Shostakovich, and Churchill. We have an informal agreement that the driver gets to choose the audio. (I'd rather listen to Mahler than hear about his personal misery, to say nothing of Shostakovich.)

But yesterday, because the Wizard is on the mainland, I had the opportunity to resume my own Teaching Company lessons in my own hot little car (his big car has air-con)--literally, The Meaning of Life, Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions.* I had left off the lectures before leaving for China in May, and then there was another sound system glitch that needed attention. It took some recollection, but I'd stopped just after Zen, and just before Hume--Lecture 22, Taking Stock of the Classical World. Since yesterday morning, I have quickly progressed from Hume to Kant to Mill to Nietzsche, with a little side trip into Tolstoy.

Who knew that The Death of Ivan Ilych could be interpreted as a Taoist fable? All through this journey into modernity and beyond, I was struck by ancient Taoist themes, usually just before the lecturer said, "Now this may remind you of the Taoists... ." Eastern thought is discussed far more --14 out of 36 TC lectures** --in this course than in any of the survey courses like this I took in college. In fact, I don't think Eastern thought was EVER included in my classic liberal arts humanities curriculum. Well, maybe once in a comparative religion class. In any case, I never would have expected to be listening to a lecture on "Nietzsche--Achieving Authenticity" some 40 years later in a traffic jam in Hawaii. Some eight o'clock class!

And now I'm looking forward to the drive home: moving on to Gandhi, Lame Deer, and the Dalai Lama, before the concluding lecture, "So, What Is the Meaning of Life?"

I just can't wait to find out. But it's a question I'll likely be asking until I die.

*The Wizard and I are both fans of The Teaching Company. I should point out that the prices cited on the the site are never what we pay; I can't imagine that anyone would...the ongoing "sales" are far more reasonable, and we expect to donate our collected curriculum to the university we both work at or pass them on to persons in need of education.
**And counting two lectures on Lame Deer, the Lakota Sioux medicine man, I think it adds up to a pretty nice balance of East and West, indigenous and European thinkers.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Brush with Ambivalence

I've been spending some quiet time recently on my lanai studio with my brushes and ink, and studying some Chinese painting manuals. I picked up a couple of interesting volumes in a bookshop in the Beijing airport on my way home last month: very fine "How To" manuals of landscape, and bird and flower painting, the two major genres in Chinese painting, along with figure painting, which I don't do or have much interest in other than looking at. Although, one of my favorite paintings, the figure of a herbalist, at right, probably a copy of some classic, hangs in the window in a Chinese pharmacy in Chinatown, and I own a similar scroll of a literati guy with some ducks. But the style I am most attracted to is shan shui (mountain and water) landscape. My teacher is bird and flower painter, but she is tolerant of my interest and more than proficient to teach the techniques of landscape.

Though a teacher is essential, manuals are an interesting element in Chinese culture studies. Wuxia stories often involve the search for some esoteric lost martial arts manual that has the final secret to some ultimate power. Likewise painting manuals describe technique and offer background into the philosophy and techniques, very interesting once one has had the foundational guidance of a teacher. Similarly qigong videos and books are useful and informative to someone once they have been initiated into the basic techniques. You can't reliably learn these any of things just from a book, but once you have been taught, the books are of value.

In this frame of mind, I scrolled through an article in the New Yorker about the purchase of a painting we all surely know (if you studied English literature in high school--I thought the artwork was called "Thanantopsis"; it always illustrated the poem) and its recent destination in a new art gallery in Arkansas. Kindred Spirits, to which I alluded in reference to my own painting exercise not so long ago, was acquired in 2005 for some $35 million by Alice Walton, the middle daughter of Sam Walton (as in Wal-Mart, not that depression-era TV series), and something like the second or third wealthiest woman in the world. She's been buying lot of American art (not infrequently by cell phone while riding a horse) to display in a museum in her home town in Arkansas which boasts a bigger endowment than the Whitney. The dynasty's outlet --or at least its related philanthropic foundation --where I got a photo for my last Chinese visa is financing a major collection of American art. She is apparently not a shabby collector, but it is something of an affront--or surprise-- to the art establishment that her acquisitions will find a home in an obscure town in the Ozarks, as an economic boon to a heartland community.

Justifying her purchase of Kindred Spirits, she said of the previous owner, "They needed the money." I'd be glad to have her give me $350...even $35...for my little "kindred spirits" echo. Why not? It's in the Chinese style, but by an American. Sort of a reverse Wal-Mart tradition.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Live and Laugh at It All

The Wizard made a grocery run today, and despite returning home with an excess of plastic bags, he somewhat redeemed himself with a surprise: the first of the season's Rainier cherries, for which I budget a sizable guiltless amount of dough (and I don't mean pastry) while the things are in season. Not yet as sweet as I hope they will be --who knows what the weather in the Northwest has done to my favorite fruit--but a sign of better things to come. And maybe I can train the family shopper to take reusable bags, which he resists, convinced that they are "germy" and maybe not as eco-friendly as purported. I need to edit the plastic bag stash; I have a friend who has a dog that's bigger than she is and she always needs more poop bags, which is creepy to think about, but there it is.

Well, as the song goes:
Life is just a bowl of cherries
Don't take it serious,
Life's too mysterious
You work,
You save,
You worry so
But you can't take your dough
When you go, go, go

So keep repeating "It's the berries."
The strongest oak must fall
The sweet things in life
To you were just loaned
So how can you lose
What you've never owned

Life is just a bowl of cherries
So live and laugh, aha!
Laugh and love
Live and laugh,
Laugh and love,
Live and laugh at it all!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sun and Moon Obsessions

Although the Summer Solstice came and went, marked largely by my beginning a new job...auspicious for me, I guess, but no one else, I note today, once again, that it is the mid-point, the yin/yang pivot really, of the Gregorian year, as many days ahead as behind. Just past new and dark, the moon begins to wax today (wax on/wax off). This weekend, a chance to regulate my breath, contemplate the cycles of my life, clean a closet, make a painting, get a haircut, finish the intriguing A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy - An Anthropological/Psychological View, by You-Sheng Li, Ph.D. (2005).

I acquired this volume of apparently self-published essays (which I recommend to fellow Tao-seekers and persons interested in Chinese cultural studies) almost two years ago, but it only just recently jumped off my shelf, after my return from Wudang Pilgrimage IV (吴朝圣). In it Dr. Li hangs many of his arguments on an anthropological distinction between primary and secondary society (echoing the pre-heaven and post-heaven Taoist concepts). In an essay called "The South and The North," in a subsection "Social Power and Talented Culture are Separate," he writes (in a somewhat Aristotelian way):
Industry is near the military side, while education and academics are near the basic human nature side. ... Universities and academic institutions are places where human talents are concentrated. ... Military power is measurable and material stuff is measurable but human nature is not measurable.
Now I understand why I may be happier, in a Taoist way, in an academic institution (even though doing essentially the same things, managing proposals) than I was in a high-tech firm that did network security R&D for the DoD. I became frustrated at the over-emphasis on metrics and processes, at the expense of human nature, that seemed unrelated to the actual good we might have been accomplishing. To articulate this at this pivotal moment in the annual cycle seems significant to me. Tao manifests itself in my life in the most surprising ways.

Ah, now to that haircut....